THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS of America have learned their lesson. But is it the right lesson? And will they go on learning? Should they?
As a Catholic layman born and raised in our ultra-democratic country, I found somethinga little too satisfying in the recent bishops’ meeting in Dallas. It was all-American fun to watch as unelected bishops, the fruit of a self-selecting bureaucracy answerable to no oneleast of all to Romehad to sit still and take their medicine, to listen to narratives of the gross abuse of innocent young people, by priests their dioceses had trained, assigned, and protected.
And they had to cave. As The New York Timesreported, "U.S. Bishops Let Public Opinion Guide Them This Time." That paper was right for once. It was obvious that many of the bishops wanted to craft a policy allowing them flexibility in handling priests whose crimes lay deep in the past, which had not (so far as one knew) been repeated. It seems more Christian, and it allows bishops who are increasingly short of priests to make good use of men who are not, it seems, causing any further problems. Like marriage, the Church considers ordination irrevocable, and she usually tries to work out problems rather than separate spouses, or clergy. But sometimes a spouse or priest is grossly abusive, and he must be sent awayeven as the sacramental bond lingers, a tragic reminder of soiled aspirations, orange blossoms and ordination fêtes.
Had the bishops adopted and followed such a strict but forgiving policy ten years ago, when they were first informed of the scope of clerical abuse, they could have done so without a peep from the pews. It was only the relentless, drawn-out revelations of bumbling by bishops good and bad, hammered home by gleeful media, which finally cracked the Skinner Box that is the U.S. Catholic Conference, and forced them to accept input from someone besides their staffs. (As Dinesh D’Souza documented in Policy Review, Fall 1985, many of these staffers used to work for Jimmy Carter; fired by Reagan, they took the Metro across town and formed the American Catholic bureaucracy. We still haven’t recovered.)
There was little input from Rome. The Vatican has virtually no control over bishops, especially in wealthy countries such as the U.S. and Germany, which fund most of the Vatican’s budget. That’s important to note, when forming one’s opinion of Pope John Paul and his handling of this crisis. There is no provision for firing bishops in the Church, except by promoting them upward to positions in Rome. Call it the "St. Peter Principle." (Note to Christ: could You please,please, whisper in a pope’s ear to do something about this, some time in the next few centuries?)
The Church is less like a centralized, international corporation than a bishops’ club. Any diocese could leave at willas Campos, Brazil, did in the 1970swith few negative, earthly consequences. If the bishops of the U.S. were to jointly defy the pope, as the English bishops did at the behest of King Henry VIII, John Paul II could do little but hurl anathemas at them. The churches, the schools, the seminaries all belong, under U.S. law, to each individual diocese. If American bishops decided to secede, they’d take with them every dime, brick, and stick.
The Vatican, for all its reputation as an international power broker, is little more than a (very tall) bully pulpit; the pope has a staff of a few hundred overworked men and women, a budget smaller than mostFortune 500 corporations, and no legal leverage. Under these constraints, it labors around the world, nudging bishops, persuading statesmen, sending missionaries, mediating wars, caring for the poor, trying to keep the Moslems from slaughtering nuns and the West from eating its young. It’s an inhuman task; that the Church succeeds at all, and has not already collapsed, ought to impress any skeptic that there’ssomething mysterious about this organization.
No, it’s the bishop who’s the locus of power, especially since Vatican II decentralized Church governance. It was American bishops whose insularity and resistance to input from below turned the manageable tragedy of a tiny number of abusive clergya few hundred, out of the hundreds of thousands of priests who’ve served in the past 50 yearsinto a crisis. Some American bishops allowed their seminaries to turn into "pink palaces," by handing the screening of new candidates over to gay-friendly nuns and agnostic shrinks. Too many clerics treated complaints by faithful priests and laymen like clods of mud hurled by a mob.
Out of all the nasty reports lovingly served up to us by media in the past year, the most offensive to me, personally, were not the lurid escapades of gay activist Paul Shanley in the confessional with boys; nor even the repeat offenses tolerated by media-savvy master-builder Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. No, the worst came in a recently publicized letter from a Catholic bishop to the infamous Fr. Shanley, where the prelate advises the priest to handle phone calls from a mother accusing him of abuse by ignoring her"merely leave her hanging until she hopefully gets discouraged," he said.
Now I’ve met the bishop in question; he’s a good and decent man, and it’s obvious from the context that he thought the charges against Shanley false, and the woman deranged. Bishops get letters all the time from mentally unstable people who believe that priests are stalking them, harassing them through their radio receivers, or hovering outside their windows in UFOs. Few are.
But because of their spiritual power and celibate aura, priests figure disproportionately in paranoid delusions, fantasies and phobias. Remember that, as the "zero tolerance" policy is implemented across the country. There will be dozens of innocent men banished to institutions, their lives in shame and shambles, thanks to false charges that can’t be disproved, and must be heeded. That’s one more ripple that will flow from the pedophiles and their millstone.
So why am I still infuriated by that letter from a bishop, that advises "leave her hanging"? Perhaps because it sums up for me a lifetime’s worth of interaction with Church officials. I won’t recount here the many times friends and I have tried to be active Catholics, only to meet condescension or disdain. Over and over, in everything from the reconstruction of my burnt-down parish, to the heresies taught at my "Catholic" high school, even the details of my mother’s funeral (silly me, I suggested black vestments)I met in the face of religious officialdom again and again one thing: a blank, stone wall. The prime consideration of these overworked, underpaid pastors seemed always to be to keep any hint of power from slipping away into the untrained, greasy fingers of laymen. I found this, and still find it, infuriating.
Why? Because I am an American, and, let’s face it, a troublemaker. As Americans, we’re used to treating institutions with a certain skepticism. Our country was founded on the rejection of any authority that we didn’t approve by a show of hands. The folks who were loyal to kings and bishops we tarred, feathered, and ran off to Canadawhere they promptly turned in their guns and erected a Nanny State, renowned for a muzzled media and suffocating political correctness. Looking at Canada shows that there are real advantages to the brick-throwing, cop-punching, tax-dodging American spirit.
But bricks don’t work so well in a glass house or a cathedral. The Church is a social animal, truelike the Boy Scouts or the Sierra Club. She also claims to be something very much morea supernatural institution, based on a complex set of hierarchical, interlocking truths that cannot be monkeyed with lightly. Pull out one, and the whole thing begins to teeter, then collapse into self-contradictory nonsense. What’s more, the Church is founded on a sciencein the old sense of the word. Theology, like mathematics, is a sophisticated field of knowledge, resting on a set of theorems which one must accept or reject, on a kind of faith. Reject them, and you can’t get started. Accept them, and an inexorable logic carries you forward to certain conclusions. It’s your free choice, as an individual, whether you buy into either system. (Myself, I’ve accepted Catholicism, and rejected Math, about which I still have classroom nightmares involving exams….) But once you’re in, you can’t change the equations by a democratic vote.Show of hands, who wants adultery? Okay. How about segregation? I thought so. Revenge killings? Yeah, me too. Listen, Moses, Jesus, we appreciate all the work your team has done on this, but we’re going to need some edits....
The knowledge base of the Church, as of any institution based on scholarship and the search for truththink of university biology departmentsis not subject to democratic vote. (Even Kansas voters realized this, eventually, and kicked out the school board that tried to mandate Creation Science.) The American Constitution itself was designed to restrain the excesses of democratic fervorwhich promptly erupted in France, two years after our Founders enacted that brilliant document. Churchmen, like French politicians before Louis XVI, are afraid to open the door to involvement by the ordinary subject, lest the whole edifice come crashing down.
Would that happen, if ordinary Catholicsnot just trouble-making, orthodox intellectuals like megot involved in choosing bishops? In changing Church policy? You bet it would. Andrew Greeley, erotic novelist and weathervane, is probably right when he says that the average American Catholic wants both condomsand altar rails, easy divorceand "Ave Maria," sung at his daughter’s third church wedding. Subject Church teachings to plebisciteremembering that a majority of American Catholics voted for Clinton and Goreand what will you get? God only knows. And that’s why he’s protecting the Church from democracy.